Thursday, March 15, 2018

International Conference Halting Deforestation and Increasing Forest Area– from Aspiration to Action

ITALY - In 2015, countries made a bold and ambitious commitment when adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Target 15.2 of SDG 15 on Life on Land calls for halting deforestation by 2020, among others. In addition, the UN Strategic Plan for Forests 2017-2030 (UNSPF) adopted in 2017 by the UN General Assembly calls for reversing the loss of forest cover and increasing forest area by 3 percent 
worldwide by 2030 (Global Forest Goal 1, Target 1.1). 

While global rates of deforestation have decreased in the recent past, from a net annual forest area loss of 7.3 million hectares in 2000 to 3.3 million hectares in 2015, the decrease has not been even across regions and deforestation rates in some regions, especially Africa and Latin America, are still alarmingly high. The greatest loss of forests has been in tropical and low-income countries. At the same time, these countries have experienced the greatest expansion of agricultural land. Between 2000 and 2010, annual net forest loss in tropical countries was 7 million hectares and the annual net gain in agricultural land was 6 million hectares. 

This illustrates that agriculture is still the main driver of deforestation. It is estimated that 80% of forest loss is due to conversion to agriculture. Forest loss in the tropics and sub-tropics is mainly driven by large-scale commercial production of agricultural commodities, which is prevalent in Latin America, and by small-scale and subsistence agriculture, which dominates deforestation in Africa and is also prevalent in Asia. While four most forest-rich countries account for half of the total global forest area, more than half of 193 UN Member States have less than 20% of their land areas covered with forests, well below the average forest cover worldwide, signaling vast opportunities to expand forest area in many countries including those in the non-tropical regions in order to meet the growing need for forest products and carbon sequestration. 

This could be done through afforestation and reforestation and/or integrated land use options at the landscape level including restoration of degraded lands and agro-forestry. In view of an increasing global population and the need to feed 9 billion people by 2050, halting deforestation by 2020 and increasing forest area by 3% by 2030 presents an enormous challenge and will require political will and concerted action across sectors at the landscape scale, to achieve the transformational change at the scale that is required. In 2018, the High Level Political Forum (HLPF), the United Nations central platform for follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals, will review SDG 15 on Life on Land and its Targets. In May 2018, the UNFF13 will be convened, focusing on a policy dialogue, taking into account the theme and review focus of the HLPF and the theme of the international day of forests.

The Forum is expected to provide its substantive input to the HLPF2018. In this regard, the outcome of the Proposed conference provides a contribution and input to the discussion of the UNFF13 on this matter to the HLPF review and to the HLPF itself. It will bring together a wide range of stakeholders to discuss the challenges of halting and reversing deforestation and to jointly explore ways to accelerate progress towards achieving in particular the SDG Target 
15.2 and Target 1.1of the UNSPF.

Halting Deforestation, A MAP Perspective on FAO Conference
by Alfredo Quarto, 2-27-2018

During the FAO conference in Rome, “Halting Deforestation,” which ran from Feb. 20-22, 2018, one of the speakers mentioned that since palm oil products are an almost ubiquitous ingredient in our food products in the EU and N. America. Because of this, he stated that oil palm has become a “necessity of life.” I contested this idea that this newly industrialized food product was instead a luxuey by the fact that the very mode of production of this food additive was only recently introduced into our food chain. Yet, this fast expanding palm oil industry has been one of the most destructive forces affecting our planet’s remaining tropical forests, which themselves are true necessities of life.

It is these kinds of wrong assumptions about dietary needs verses luxuries that are in effect paralyzing our efforts to protect or conserve primary and already degraded forests. And, further, who really benefits from such modern industries as the palm oil industry? Surely, it is not the great majority of the resident populace of the southern hemisphere, or Global South, where the industry has so recently blossomed like a spreading cancer upon the landscape. Most benefiting from this new food additive are in the wealthier, importing nations in the Global North, who prior to this recent introduction to their food and drink products got along fine before the introduction and widening use of palm oil.

This palm oil industry parallels other such South-based industries, such as shrimp farming, tourism, diamond mining, coffee and banana production that along with other such South-based production industries are geared towards markets in the Global North, offering vast wealth to a minority of local entrepreneurs, with little trickle down effect in the poorer producer nations, thus further impoverishing the vast majority of the population in the South whose natural resource base and once bountiful environment is further dangerously degraded or destroyed by yet another local resource-destructive, export-oriented industry.
This raises a serious concern as to the reasoning of industry investors and their big international NGO supporters, along with government backers in justifying this kind of  “tunnel-vision,” intensive industry that in essence robs the poor to feed the rich. Massive areas of tropical rainforests have been cleared by such industries, and local biodiversity has been decimated, while local communities are impoverished. What many consider a great boon for the local economy is short-lived and painful for the overall local populace and their affected environment. Such industries are top-down, not bottom-up, enterprises, where few benefit while the majority does not.

Oil palm quite unmistakably mimics shrimp farming in its destructive spread and effect, whether in Asia, Latin America or Africa, where tropical and semi-tropical rainforests, including mangroves, are lost, local communities uprooted and innumerable species threatened or extinguished. In regards to mangrove forests and shrimp farm expansion, the losses associated with shrimp farming, especially in the 1980s to the present have been tremendous, with over 40% reduction in mangrove wetland area. Though there has been a noticeable slowdown in mangrove loss due to shrimp farm expansion, still there are continuing worrisome losses in many countries, such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Honduras, where ongoing mangrove clearing for shrimp farming is occurring today.  

At the Halting Deforestation conference in Rome, a more general picture of global forest loss was painted, with less mention or focus on specific forest types such as mangroves or upland tropical forests. Nevertheless, it was understood by most present that the vast majority and most rapid of forest losses were occurring in the Global South. One of the first plenary speakers, Dr. Christiana Figueres with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change spoke eloquently about the challenges ahead, looking at these challenges not so much as obstacles but more as opportunities for positive change. She stated that 30% of climate change mitigation could come from combined forest conservation, reforestation and afforestation efforts, yet the world forests were really a “forgotten sector” in most people’s minds when dealing with pressing climate change issues today. 

Dr. Figueres especially emphasized the importance of primary forests, which she called our planet’s “prime jewels,” stating that these were “simply irreplaceable.” She asked how it was possible that we were not preserving these vital “hubs of seed generation” for the future, when it was so obvious that restoration or rehabilitation programs cannot regenerate the full gamut of benefits and services that these remaining intact primary forests provide. In fact, it is our responsibility to maintain and conserve these primary forests, while restoring degraded and destroyed forest areas, if we are to be effective in combating climate change. (This is the exact sentiment that we at MAP have ourselves been purporting for several years now.)

Dr. Figueres warned that in our present modus operandi in dealing with these issues, we are still only walking, not running, towards solutions. We need to scale-up our efforts to sufficiently counter the adverse effects of climate change, recognizing not only the primary drivers of climate change, but also the primary cures for what is ailing our planet. To ensure this happens sooner than later, we must now insert the effective preservation of our remaining primary forests as imperative to this effort. To take on this challenge and implement the solution this opportunity now demands of us, we must recognize and act upon the difference between the “political world and the real world.” Taking a more cross-sectoral approach by interconnecting different issues, such as forests, agriculture and urban development, moving in the process from active threat to opportunity for needed adjustments in policy and industry, moving between national level to jurisdictional level, from global to individual needs, while working towards a future that values all of humanity’s well-being.  

Then Dr. Tony Simons, the director of Forestry Policy and Resources Division for the FAO spoke stating that 69% of forest loss today is due to degradation, whereby actual clearing of forests plays a lesser role in overall forest losses. He also affirmed that forest loss plays a large part in worsening climate change, but forest degradation contributes more to climate change than actual forest clearing. He suggested that each nation should aim towards conserving and/or restoring 40% of its land area as forest to meet the current crisis of climate change.  The formula he recommended to combat climate change was for establishing a “40 x 40 x Forests.” He also stated that agriculture contributed to the largest share of forest loss. 

Dr. Simons also emphasized the need to broaden our attention to the value of “whole systems,” and not focus on the separate system components, as the system is more than its components. Forests have social, economic and ecological values that need to be looked at in a more holistic fashion, not isolating one from another as too often happens. (2)

Trees are much more important to tackling climate change than previously thought. A research team at the University of Leeds found forests absorb nearly 40 per cent of the 38 billion tons of human produced CO2 annually. This first substantive study to look at all the world’s forests together found that established forests, from temperate and boreal forests in the north to sub-tropical and tropical rainforests in the south, including mangroves, absorb 8.8 billion tons of CO2 every year.  Globally, newly planted and restored forests sequester a further 6 billion tons of CO2.  However 10.8 billion tons CO2 is released as a consequence of deforestation, while a further 28 billon tons is generated by cars, factories and other sources of fossil fuels. (3)

*(Note: The amount of carbon sequestered by trees is determined by measuring the density of wood, height and width of different tree species over time. Mangroves sequester 5 times more CO2 than tropical rainforests and store the carbon for hundreds of years in their peat soils.)

Dr Simon Lewis, a tropical ecologist from the University of Leeds and co-author of the study claimed that halting deforestation and planting more trees could make a huge difference. He stated: "Humans are altering the world's forests in a number of ways, from their outright destruction to the much more subtle impacts on even the most remote forests caused by global changes to the environment. Our research shows these changes are having globally important impacts, which highlights the critical role forests play in the global cycling of carbon and therefore the speed and severity of future climate change. The practical importance of this new information is that if schemes to reduce deforestation are successful they would have significant positive global impacts, as would similar efforts promoting forest restoration." (2)  

Dr. Jorge Mario Rodriguez, the executive director of National Fund for Forest Finance in Costa Rica talked about Costa Rica’s unique and highly successful approach to reversing deforestation and meeting its goals on CO2 emissions. In 1955, Costa Rican forests had shrunk to a mere 21% of the original forest area due to rapid clearing, mainly for livestock rearing. The government made the important decision to reverse the forest loss by initiating a unique reforestation program that resulted in total forest cover reaching 60% of the country’s total area by 1995. The government initiated a limited tax on fuel program that has allowed Costa Rica to successfully finance and support its ambitious forest restoration plans.  This was an early precursor of the carbon tax initiative that raises funds via citizen fuel purchases to help finance a Payment for Environmental Services (PES) plan. This PES plan was put in place to encourage local conservation measures. Payments of $40 per ha of reforested lands were made to participating landowners. Because most land ownership in Costa Rica is in smaller parcels of less than 20 ha, more citizens participate, and the benefits of PES reach a greater portion of the country’s population. The PES program serves as an incentive to strengthen ecological conservation and forest rehabilitation in the country. This initiative also supports Costa Rica’s CO2 emissions reduction pledge made at the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. (4)

The successful reforestation efforts in Costa Rica have also resulted in increased water supply for the country, because the trees act as living “hydraulic pumps” that ensure adequate water supplies for the communities and the environment. 

There is still a long ways to go to halt forest losses and reverse the negative trends. About 40% of forest clearing is due to commercial agriculture. Less than 40 years ago about 3.3 million ha per year of forest lands were cleared for agricultural expansion, but now that annual rate of loss has risen to about 6 million ha. There are estimates that by 2050 the world population will surpass 9 billion people, and it will require an increase in food production by half to sustain this population. To meet this challenge, we must develop more efficient ways to farm and raise our foods on limited resources of land, water and nutrients.  Forests must play an important role in providing the water, clean air and healthy soils for this growing need.  The challenges we face today are indeed immense, but so too are the opportunities to meet these challenges. This will require a major paradigm shift, however, from the more self-centered aggrandizement of wealth of the few to a more equitable and conscientious sharing of our planetary resources.  Only through collaborative cooperation will humankind have that chance to survive on this planet in a way that promotes the health of a living, sustainable home.

One of the keynote speakers was a young woman, Ms. Salina Abraham, who is the president of the International Forestry Students Association (IFSA), based in Germany. She was leading a training workshop involving around 40 graduate forestry students from around the world who were also attending the FAO conference. The theme of their parallel workshop was “Shaking the Coconut Tree.” Their enthusiasm for life and their passionate optimism to reverse the negative trends affecting our planet, including deforestation and the threats of climate change, was infectious for the otherwise rather staid audience of older attendees- governmental and inter-governmental officials, decision makers, corporate leaders, NGOs, academics and scientists.  The serious mindset of the audience seemed to brighten and spirits were visibly lifted when Ms. Abraham spoke. The crowd felt much needed hope in her words and the next generation of world leaders she represented at the UN. However, we all understood that it would take more than the next generation to resolve the problems now besetting our civilization. Our cessation of destructive and shortsighted developments must be immediate, accompanied by effective, long-term remedial actions. We must join these coexistent generations to work together to conserve and protect, restore and rehabilitate, respect and love the planet we call Earth, our birthplace and true home.

1) Dr. Christiana Figueres, Convenor, Mission 2020, UN Convention on Climate Change, Plenary Session at FAO’s Halting Deforestation Conference, Rome, Italy, Feb. 20-22, 2018

2) Dr. Tony Simons, Director of Forestry Policy and Resources Division for the FAO, Plenary Session at FAO’s Halting Deforestation Conference, Rome, Italy, Feb. 20-22, 2018 

3) World's forests absorb almost 40 per cent of man made CO2, The Telegraph, by Louise Gray, Environment Correspondent, Aug. 18, 2011

4) Dr. Jorge Mario Rodriguez, the executive director of National Fund for Forest Finance in Costa Rica, Plenary Session at FAO’s Halting Deforestation Conference, Rome, Italy, Feb. 20-22, 2018

5) Ms. Salina Abraham, President of the Intl. Forestry Students Assoc. (IFSA), Plenary Session at FAO’s Halting Deforestation Conference, Rome, Italy, Feb. 20-22, 2018

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